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Coming Out Strong: Anastasia Bucsis and Charline Labonte Visit Cornell

There are few achievements in this world that can rival representing your country as an Olympic athlete. For many, it remains an elusive dream; for a precious few, this dream is fulfilled. Anastasia Bucsis and Charline Labonté are two who have seen this dream become a reality. They both know the rush of representing Canada and the thrill of skating in an Olympic rink—Anastasia as a speed skater, Charline as a goalie for the Canadian women’s hockey team. Both Charline and Anastasia earned a place on the long illustrious list of Olympic athletes. They also share another distinction; both have openly come out as lesbian athletes. As society in Canada and the world learns to accept homosexuality, the first line of acceptance comes from the individual. Both of these athletes had to struggle through a terrifying journey of self-discovery. They both came to Cornell to talk about this journey on Wednesday, March 25th at a panel organized by Athlete Ally, the Cornell University Programming Board and Haven.

Charline’s first love affair was with hockey, even though Greenfield Park, her hometown, had no women’s hockey team. She didn’t let her gender hold her back from her passion, and joined the men’s team. Never questioning her sexuality, she had several boyfriends growing up. It was only after she joined a women’s team as an adult that she started to have feelings for other women. “It’s okay,” were the words she received when she called up her best friend for support. She found herself surrounded by accepting teammates and family members. Her biggest obstacle was facing herself and internalizing her new gay status. Although saying the words out loud were difficult, in the end her teammates responded, “We knew—all of us knew, we were just waiting for you to say it.” In her sport, she realized, she was surrounded by successful people who had gone through similar struggles. After she accepted it in herself she realized, “no one cares.” Although key for understanding herself, her homosexuality didn’t alter how the world saw her. In the end, her brother simply said, “Who cares? It’s you.”

For Anastasia, the truth of her sexual orientation was one that she struggled with for some time. Growing up in Alberta—as she put it, “the Texas of Canada”, she was afraid of rejection. Even as she became increasingly aware of her homosexuality, she struggled with fully admitting it to herself. She remembers having a breakdown as she changed into her suit for an event soon after qualifying for the Vancouver Olympics. Thinking about the larger-than-life Olympics heroes she had looked up to, she didn’t feel like she matched up to this ideal: “I’m not an Olympian, I’m 20 years old, I’m not going to win a medal…Oh my god, and I’m gay—and I bawled my eyes out.” She couldn’t love herself, when she didn’t know who she was. As she prepared for the upcoming Olympics she threw herself into her sport, started dating a boy, and tried to distance herself from her sexuality. She wanted to prove to herself that she was straight, because she had no one to tell her that it was okay. With no role models in speed skating to look up to, she felt isolated and like she was in a tail spin. In January 2013, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. However, she found solace online and eventually came to accept and love herself. This struggle led her to her long-time girlfriend Charline and also pushed her to become the role model she had lacked, in hopes of guiding other LGBTQ athletes to the calm after the storm.

Both women stressed the importance of reaching out and having someone there.  Their clear message to all LGBTQ athletes, Olympians, and fans, as Anastasia put it: “First and foremost, it’s so cliché, but it really does get better.” She also added, “If you’re not comfortable enough to find a physical community or the support isn’t there, go on the internet.” Charline said, “It’s just a matter of being comfortable with who you are, and finding those resources around you that are going to help you get to that point. There are a lot of people online or on campus…don’t be scared to reach out, or think that you’re the only one, because there are a lot of people that are in the same situation.”  There will be a time when you feel alone, consumed by your own uncertainties. You are only as isolated as you make yourself. The monsters under your bed are always scarier when you face them alone.  Do not be afraid to reach out to those around you. This was a lesson that was hard-learnt for both these athletes. One faced the fear of a conservative community, the other the difficulty of deciphering personal truths. However, they both were able to face this internal turmoil and emerge triumphant.

Charline is a gold medal-winning Olympian who participated in four Olympic games: Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi. Anastasia also had the honor of representing her country in the Vancouver and Sochi games. “You blink and you’re there,” says a humble Charline, as she comments on her path to the Olympic ice. It’s clear that these women are dedicated to their sports and fellow athletes. Even in Sochi, surrounded by anti-gay propaganda, they came as athletes, ready to try their hardest for their country. While they were aware that the world was looking at the games through a social lens, to them it was still about pushing themselves to be their best. Charline knew it was time to come out in public, but she didn’t want to divert the focus of the media. She didn’t want to become the “Face of women’s hockey,” because it was still about the team and the game. However, after competition was over, she felt like the time was right to make a public statement.

For these modest women the fact that they were some of the best athletes in the world was not a big deal; the fact that they were gay was even less. Once they accepted their identities, the rest was “a piece of cake.” Their only concern is that some sports have a façade of homophobic and sexist language. They hope this will soon fade away, as people understand that everyone should feel safe and accepted. They are athletes first and everyone has the right to play.

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